The birth of a truly distinguished American opera.
JENNIFER HIGDON: Cold Mountain (comp. opera) – Jay Hunter Morris (Teague)/ Robert Pomakov (Owens)/ Adrian Kramer (Owens’ Son)/ Nathan Gunn (W.P. Inman)/ Kevin Burdette (A Blind Man)/ Isabel Leonard (Ada Monroe)/ Emily Fons (Ruby Thewes) The Santa Fe Opera Orch. & Members of The Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program for Singers/ Miguel Harth-Bedoya – Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC5186583 (2 discs), TT: 145:40 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
Like most novels of sufficient length and depth, it is virtually impossible to react while maintaining the consistency and formative narrative that makes the work succeed—or not. But when doing so for an opera, one does at least have a chance providing the music is up to the task. Opera, after all, is able to amplify and illumine specific static moments of a work in a way that even the most verbose text is unable to accomplish, emotionally speaking. This stylized formula, tried and true after so many years, and when in the hands of a genius composer, is often able to give birth to new and varied aspects of characterizations and hidden layers of meaning not present even in the original. No one, for example, is going to claim that Verdi’s Falstaff replaces emotively or content-wise the substance of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Yet many would also rank that particular piece by the great Italian on a par musically with what Shakespeare’s piece is in the literary realm. They complement, but do not substitute.
If by chance a movie has been made of the book, added complexities ensue for the reader/watcher/ listener. In the case of Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s singular opus about the trials and tribulations—and in some case, exonerations—of the people of the Confederacy, those who are only familiar with the movie are in no way displaced. It was, after all, a stupendous hit—and continues to be—with a redaction already in place that did no injury to the book. In fact, when I was first glancing through the libretto, it seemed as if it was following the same scaffolding constructed for the movie. It doesn’t, entirely, but as it turns out the pivotal moments in the book that the movie revolves around makes for a close comparison and betrays a similar sense of highlighted episodes.
This works just fine, as the penetrating music of Jennifer Higdon, one of the superstars in today’s classical music firmament, offers yet another developmental excursion into the complexities of Frazier’s marvelous story. What the book hints at, brilliantly, and the movie brings to life in an interpretative manner, the music turns inside out and allows us to more fully absorb the difficulties and challenges faced by these many-faceted and all-too human personages. Higdon tries her best not to offer us a piece overly-infused with hints of shape note harmonies and Coplandesque vistas, but instead to run these influences through a musical prism that is her own unique language while not divesting itself of the very peculiar time and cultural setting that inhabits the story. The music is magnificent.
This is a Santa Fe Opera production, part of a new series of multichannel American Opera splendors that Pentatone has seen fit to record, and worthy addition it is. Sound is terrific, and the performances superb, especially the difficult role of W.P. Inman played by Nathan Gunn, but this is to single out a superlative in a cast of superlatives. I really hope this becomes the American classic it deserves to be.